San Francisco-based writer Ernest Beyl was a regular at that city’s Trader Vic’s and got to know Vic Bergeron—who, says Beyl, occasionally allowed him to dine in the Captain’s Cabin. This recollection of the restaurant—which closed in 1993 (a new San Francisco Trader Vic’s opened in another location in October)—appeared in somewhat different form in the Nob Hill Gazette in May of this year.
It wasn’t until 1951, after much hesitation, that Vic decided to open in San Francisco. He discussed it with Herb Caen: “Kid, you think I can make it over there?” And Caen answered, “What’s the problem? Most of your customers are from San Francisco.” Vic found a corrugated, tin-roofed garage in Cosmo Place, between Taylor and Jones streets. He hired prominent San Francisco architect Gardiner Dailey to design a kind of South Seas island movie set and told him, “When you get through turning this into a restaurant I still want it to look like a shed.” What Dailey turned out was exotic, and a delicate mix of the funky and the elegant.
Customers approached the Cosmo Place Trader Vic’s by walking along a narrow entryway, lush with tropical plants on either side, and after climbing a few stairs they proceeded along an opulent, narrow hall. Glass cases ran along both sides with South Seas artifacts, tiki dolls, and, yes, a shrunken head. At the far end of this Indiana Jones movie set, one encountered not Trader Vic himself but Michael O. Gutierrez, with the reservations book open before him. Mike Gutierrez was more than a maitre d’hotel. He was the keeper of the Trader Vic flame. A former U.S. marine with the toughness of a gunnery sergeant and the charm of Cary Grant, Gutierrez worked for Trader Vic for 37 years. In an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, he once said that, on opening nights of the opera or symphony or other major San Francisco events, you “shouldn’t plan on getting a table in the Captain’s Cabin unless your family fortune was made in the 19th century”.
Once they got past Mike Gutierrez, guests were ushered into one of three Trader Vic’s dining rooms: the Tiki Room, the Garden Room, or the exalted Captain’s Cabin. The Captain’s Cabin, equivalent to the innermost, secluded chambers of the Vatican, was a rectangular dining room with plush red leather banquettes around its edges. It was flanked by a long, polished bar where skilled barmen dispensed all of those Trader Vic-created rum drinks like the legendary mai tai, the suffering bastard, and the missionary’s downfall.
Soon, the tin-roofed shed on Cosmo Place became the mother ship of the Trader Vic’s empire. It was receiving international publicity. The more famous it became, the more it attracted the highly affluent social set. In the mid-1950s, it was the place to go and the place to be seen, attracting visitors from all over the world. U.S. presidents, movie stars, sports figures, college students and their dates—all flocked to Trader Vic’s. In 1983, Queen Elizabeth II dined there when she visited San Francisco. It was the first, and to that time the only, public restaurant the queen had ever visited.